Humanity has been fighting against disease throughout history, from the common cold to the Bubonic Plague, and most recently, the coronavirus, aka COVID-19. Humanity continues this fight in fiction, to varying degrees of success.
Fighting an invisible opponent like a disease can be frightening, lending the subject well to horror and post-apocalyptic fiction, as well as to medical dramas and thrillers. Sometimes, as in the case of Captain Trips in “The Stand,” or the European Flu in BBC’s “Survivors,” the disease manages to wipe out most of humanity, leaving a few survivors to carry on in a harsh world. Other times, as with the Solanum Virus in “World War Z” or Vampiris in “I Am Legend,” the disease transforms its victims into a new threat for the heroes of the story to face.
The origins of the diseases can also be as plentiful in fiction as they are in reality, and their effects can be just as varied. Often, these deadly viruses are manmade, and serve as cautionary tales about humanity’s hubris; Captain Trips escaped containment from a government lab where it was developed as a weapon. On the opposite end, ALZ-112 and ALZ-113 were developed in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” as a potential cure for Alzheimer’s disease that went horribly awry, eradicating nearly all of the human population and giving rise to intelligent, talking apes.
While many diseases in fiction are used to bring about a postapocalyptic setting for other tales, some are used to create medical drama. In the films Contagion and Outbreak, scientists race to contain outbreaks of Meningoencephalitis Virus-1 (MEV-1) and Motaba, respectively. Star Trek introduced polywater intoxication, aka the Psi 2000 virus, for the same purpose, as was Andromeda created for “The Andromeda Strain.” In an extreme case, the Macrovirus from Star Trek: Voyager was both a medical and a physical threat, due to its gargantuan size. Rarely, such as with Osmosis Jones or Green Lantern’s Despotellis and Leezle Pon, the diseases are literally personified and become antagonists with intelligence and personality.
Sometimes, a disease is used not as an antagonist, but as a MacGuffin. Xenopolycythemia was introduced on Star Trek as a supposedly incurable disease simply to give Dr. McCoy an excuse to leave the Enterprise, only to discover a cure in the forgotten medical knowledge of a new alien society. The Phage was created to serve as an explanation and motivation for the aggressive behavior of the Vidiians on Star Trek: Voyager, who harvested organs from hapless travelers in their desperation to stave off the disease.
Humanity and disease are ancient enemies, and this conflict serves as rich story material. This is unlikely to change, as the fight against disease is never-ending.